Thinking about Gamification in Learning and Instruction

Here is a rough draft of the introduction of a chapter I am writing for a book. The first part of the chapter is an attempt to identify the key elements in the definition of gamification. Ironically, there is a good deal of consensus on the high level definition but, as they say, the devil is in the details.

Gamification is an emergent approach to instruction which facilitates learning and encourages motivation through the use of game elements, mechanics and game-based thinking. In gamification, the student does not play an entire game from start to finish; rather they participate in activities that include elements from games such as earning points, overcoming a challenge or receiving badges for accomplishing tasks. The idea is to integrate game-based elements more commonly seen in video, entertainment focused or mobile games into instructional environments. While not reliant on technology, the advent of technological devices has made the development and deployment of gamification more ubiquitous.

Origin of Term

The term “gamification” first appeared in 2008 originating in the digital media industry and did not gain widespread recognition until approximately 2010 (Deterding, et. al. 2011, Groh, 2012). While the term is relatively new, there seems to be general agreement about the basic tenants of gamification. Gamification has been defined as the “process of using game thinking and mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems” (Zichermann, 2010) as “using game techniques to make activities more engaging and fun”(Kim, 2011) and as “using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems” (Kapp, 2012) as well as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” (Deterding et al, 2011, p.1).

Complication in Application

While there is a relative consensus around the definition of gamification, the complication arises when one tries to go beyond the surface definition and identify the elements, game mechanics and game-based thinking that constitute games which, in turn, would be the elements of gamification. The difficult aspect of gamification is defining what constitutes a game mechanic or an element of a game or even game-based thinking. One place to start is to break the concept of “game” into its component pieces in an attempt to answer the question, “what elements make a game?”

Researchers have attempted to break games into component parts but consensus has not been achieved. Apostol, Zaharescu and Alexe, (2013) identify eight elements they believe constitute game elements. The elements are rules, goals and clear outcomes, feedback and rewards, problem solving, players, safe environment, and sense of mastery. While Stott and Neustaedter (2013) identify four critical game elements freedom to fail, rapid feedback, progression, and storytelling.

Juul (2003) identified six elements which include rules, variable quantifiable outcome, player effort, valorization of the outcome, attachment of the player to the outcome, and negotiable consequences. According to Thiagarajan (1999) conflict, control, closure, and contrivance are the four necessary components for games. Wilson et. al. (2008) identified the attributes of games as adaptation, assessment, challenge, conflict, control, fantasy, interaction, language/communication, location, mystery, pieces or players, progress and surprise, representation, rules/goals, safety and finally sensory stimuli.

Major Categories Identified

If one categorizes the various elements listed above it seems possible to identify four major categories under which most game elements can be categorized. The categorizations are engagement, autonomy, mastery and the sense of progression. The concept of rules is under the category of Autonomy because the rules provide guidelines and boundaries under which a learner operates when engaging with a gamification learning experience.

Another Confounding Element

In addition to the elements of games, there are also a number of game dynamics or actions which take place while a player is engaged with a game. These include matching, collecting/capturing, allocating resources, strategizing, building, puzzle solving, exploring, helping and role-playing (Kapp, Blair & Mesch 2013). Combining these dynamics with the game elements above provides a context into which learners can be engaged through gamification. The idea is to glean the most effective game elements from a learning perspective and use them for motivation and engagement of the learners.


Apostol, S., Zaharescu, L. & Alexe, I. (2013) Gamification of Learning and Educational Games. The 9th International Scientific Conference eLearning and Software for Education.

Deterding, S., Khaled, R., Nacke, L. E., & Dixon, D (2011) CHI 2011, May 7–12, 2011, Vancouver, BC, Canada. ACM 978-1-4503-0268-5/11/05.

Groh, F. (2012), Gamification: State of the Art Definition and Utilization in Proceedings of the 4th Seminar on Research Trends in Media Informatics Institute of Media Informatics.

Juul, J. (2003). The Game, the player, the world: Looking for a heart of gameness. In M. Copier & J. Raessens, (Eds.), Proceedings at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, November 4-6 (pp. 30-45). Utrechet, the Netherlands: Utercht University.

Kapp, K. M. (2012) The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Case-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. New York: Pfieffer: An Imprint of John Wiley & Sons.

Kapp, K. M., Blair, L. & Mesch, R. (2013) The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Theory into Practice. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Kim, A. J. (23, March, 2011) Gamification 101: Designing the player journey. Google Tech Talk. Retrieved

Stott, A. and Neustaedter, C. (2013), Analysis of Gamification in Education, Technical Report 2013-0422-01, Connections Lab, Simon Fraser University, Surrey, BC, Canada, April, 8 pgs.

Thiagarajan. S. (1999). Team activities for learning and performance. In H.D., Stolovitch & E.J. Keeps (Eds.), Handbook of Human Performance Technology (pp. 518-544). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfieffer.

Wilson, K. A., Bedwell, W.L., Lazzara, E.H., Salas, E. Burke, C.S. Estock, J.L., Orvis, L. K., & Conkey, C. , Relationships Between Game Attributes and Learning Outcomes: Review and Research Proposals Simulation & Gaming April 2009 40: 217-266, first published on August 26, 2008 doi:10.1177/1046878108321866.

Zichermann, G. (2010, October 26). Fun is the Future: Mastering Gamification. Retrieved July 18, 2012, from YouTube Google Tech Talks:


To learn more about gamification and games for learning:

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